STURDY independence" sums up the character of the king-crow (Dicrurus ater). Needless to state, this royal bird has no connexion with the vulgar, plebeian crow. It is difficult to account for the origin of this popular name. It is true that the king-crow is clothed in glossy, shining black plumage from the top of his head to the tip of his long forked tail, but with this, all resemblance to the corvi ceases. The two races have absolutely nothing else in common. They are, moreover, sworn enemies.
Far more appropriate is one of the native names for the bird, the kotwal; which, being interpreted, is the head officer of the chief police station. Every one who is acquainted, on the one hand, with the methods of the Indian police, and, on the other, with the habits of the king-crow, will appreciate the title. This bird, who should more properly be called the black drongo, is the chief police officer of the feathered world. He is inspector-general, commissioner, superintendent, inspector and constable, all rolled into one. He takes upon his shoulders the burden of keeping in order the whole bird population of India. His office is no sinecure, for although the fowls of the air are in general law-abiding folk, there are not wanting among them vagabonds, egg-stealers, nest-breakers, and other criminals.
Among birds, as among human beings, the wicked nourish like the green bay tree. Crows, kites, and birds of prey live lives of iniquity, yet they have possessed themselves of the land. They are so numerous that the king-crow is flown off his wings in endeavouring to keep them in something like order. He receives no fixed salary for his police duties.
But, were you to ask the drongo if philanthropic motives prompted him to do this work, he would put his tongue in his cheek and split his sides with laughing. He is an Eastern. He lives up to all the best traditions of the Oriental police by levying blackmail at every opportunity. Moreover, he looks with lenient eye on offences committed against the person or property of others, becoming zealous in his duties only when he has to investigate crimes of which he is the victim.
The king-crow is of opinion that charity begins -: and ends -: at home. Hence it comes to pass that the police activity of the drongo is greatest during the nesting season. At no other time has the bird any property to look after. Nests are constructed from April to July, and during these months a couple of king-crows chasing a crow or a kite is a sight so common as to attract but little attention.
Nearly every bird, no matter how small or weak, will attack the animal which threatens its nest; in this respect there is nothing remarkable about the king-crow.
He, however, differs from all other birds in the ferocity of his attack and the eagerness with which he rushes into the fray.
Like the London street cad, the king-crow thoroughly enjoys a row. He never loses an opportunity of picking a quarrel. If another bird so much as wink its eye at His Royal Highness, that is held to be sufficient provocation. To venture within twenty yards of the tree in which the royal nest is situated is high treason.
Now, since the drongo's nest is not so large as a lawn-tennis ball, and is usually carefully concealed in a forked branch of a leafy tree, it often happens that a quiet, inoffensive bird, one who has never done anything naughty, innocently settles in the tree only to be roughly handled by the unreasonable owners of the nest. It is superfluous to say that the crow never loses a chance of " taking a rise" out of a king-crow. The interest which the larger bird takes in the nest of the smaller is really quite affecting.
A crow is pottering about aimlessly, looking out for mischief for idle claws to do, when it observes a couple of drongos busily at work. " A nest, probably young ones!" says Mr. Corvus Splendens to his noble self. He then proceeds to wend his way towards the king-crows, sailing along with that air of jaunty nonchalance which cats and crows alone can assume.
" Morning! How's the nest and the dear little angels ? " caws he. In less time than it takes to relate, the irate drongos have dashed at the crow, and are trying to secure beakfuls of feathers out of his back.
The last-named is beating a hasty and somewhat undignified retreat; he is half sorry he came, his joy at having angered the king-crows being tempered by the fear of parting with a portion of his plumage.
The king-crow is the pluckiest of birds. It is difficult to name the creature of which he is afraid. One day I happened to pass under a low tree in which some drongos were sitting. These birds began to swear lustily. I looked up to investigate the phenomenon, and saw that there were in the tree three young king-crows, fresh from the nest and scarcely able to fly.
The birds were out of my reach, but notwithstanding this the parents fluttered about my head in a state of great excitement. Had I touched one of the youngsters the father and mother would probably have attacked my hand, and tried to take pieces of flesh out of it.
I once saw a couple of drongos treat a monkey very shamefully. The mammal was squatting in the middle of the road, and, to avoid the wheels of my cart and the lash of my whip, took refuge in a neem tree.
Now this tree happened to contain a king-crow's nest. Before the monkey was half-way up the tree the drongos were taking pecks at his head. The ape looked very hurt at this outbreak of Hooliganism, having of course no idea that the birds were merely protecting their nest. He jumped into the next tree, but the attack continued with unabated fury.
So the monkey moved on again, but the king-crows still continued to make dashes at his head, which must have been aching badly by this time. The monkey then jumped on to the ground and cowered at the base of the trunk of a tree.
Still the little furies made swoops at him, so that he took to his heels and ran until he had put a long distance between himself and his foes.
I think sufficient has been said to show that king-crows are able to look after their nests.
Before passing on to consider some other traits of their sturdy character, a few words about the nest and eggs may not be out of place. The former is "a strong, neat cup of roots and grass," covered over with cobwebs. It looks rather like a knot in a tree and hence is very difficult to distinguish when the bird is not sitting. The eggs are remarkable as being of three distinct types. They may be pure white, the ground colour may be white, spotted with red, or the general colour may be salmon, spotted with red, brown, and purple.
This is, I think, a very hard nut for those to crack who maintain that eggs laid in nests are protectively coloured. Needless to say, the same kind of young bird comes out of each description of egg. The young, when they first leave the nest, closely resemble their parents, the chief point of difference being that the lower plumage is spotted with white or grey. The adult king-crow is a most beautiful object. Its beauty is that of form and proportion rather than of colour. It is the beauty of the athlete, of the racehorse, of the tiger.
King-crows need to be of athletic build, for they live exclusively on flies and insects, which they catch on the wing. Their method of securing a meal is simple. It is to take up a position on the back of a cow, or horse (far enough forward to avoid the swish of the tail), on a bare branch, a railing, a telegraph pole, or any other " rod, pole or perch " from which a good outlook can be obtained. From this point of vantage they make little sallies into the air after insects. It is at this juncture that the king-crow's forked tail is useful; it is by no means a mere ornament; it is the bird's rudder, and a most efficient steering apparatus it makes. The aerial movements of a king-crow, its graceful flight, its rapid turns, its elegant curves, compel admiration. The chased insect has not the ghost of a chance.
Not long ago I witnessed a most interesting insect-catching match at the Gymkhana Club, Madras, between the crows and the drongos. It was a case of Gentlemen v. Players. The crows were the Gentlemen. I use the word in its strict sporting sense. As to social status, the crow is on a par with the professional card-sharper, but as regards fly-catching he is an amateur.
It was Sunday evening, when, the Gymkhana being deserted by human beings, the birds were able to enjoy themselves without let or hindrance. The king-crows were perched on the white railings, while the crows were on the ground inside the enclosure. The sun had just disappeared below the horizon and insects innumerable were upon the wing. These were the quarry. The king-crows won the toss and put the crows in first. As an insect came conveniently near, a crow made a dash at it and in most cases missed it, then a king-crow would capture it and thereby score a point. The " Pros " literally " ran round " the amateurs.
Never before has a more crushing defeat been inflicted upon an amateur team. Time after time the drongos succeeded where the crows had failed. It was amusing to compare the clumsy attempts of the corvi with the neat, clean curves and turns of the drongos. But the crows, although outclassed, did not give in. The contest lasted until the umpires decided that the light was too bad for play, and so ordered stumps to be drawn.
Another proof of the masterful character of the king-crow is the small amount of sleep in which he indulges. Great men and drongos allow themselves only about five hours' sleep in the twenty-four. The king-crows are always the last of the birds to go to bed and are usually the earliest to rise. Long before dawn, the cheery, metallic, whistling note of the king-crow is to be heard.
A short time ago one of these birds tuned up at 2.30 a.m. In the middle of the day they do not sing much ; they are too earnestly engaged in the business of life to indulge in the " chanting of foolish litanies " and the like frivolities, but, as the sun begins to approach the horizon, they allow themselves a little relaxation in form of song.
In spite of all his cleverness, the king-crow is victimized by a cuckoo. But we may say this for him, that he is the dupe of no clumsy hoax. The cuckoo in question is able to gain access to the nest only by donning the plumage of the king-crow. The disguise is almost perfect, the only flaw being that the cuckoo is not able to disguise its zygodactyle feet. But the king-crow does not notice such trifles. If he did he would probably take the wily cuckoo for a deformed cousin and offer him a ticket for a free dinner at the nearest charitable institute.